Saturday, February 26, 2011

A is for artichoke

Last week's really warm day - way too warm for February day - was a big tease.  However, it affected my desire to eat the food of springtime.  First and foremost, artichokes.  So, I made a a trip to my local supermarket and purchased a few artichokes. 
It just so happens that it's spring in California where most of this country's artichokes are grown - so, I no trouble tracking down some very nice, plump specimens.
Unless you just steam the glorious thistle buds - which is what artichokes are -, then dip their leaves in melted butter or oil and vinegar you're going to have to do a bit of work to get to the delicious, fleshy center.
I don't mind that chore because I know what lies ahead.  Once the artichoke is whittled down to just naked heart and peeled stem, it can be used for so many preparations.
You'll want to eat artichokes not just for their luxurious flavor but also with the knowledge that of all  the vegetables on earth, these contain the highest amount of anti-oxidant - cynarin - capacity, helping to make them a supreme aid to digestion.  In fact, artichokes are the main ingredient in one of my favorite digestivi  - the Italian liqueur, Cynar.

Here's how you pare an artichoke down to its heart and make it ready for 100s of preparations:  thinly sliced, raw, tossed in a salad  with Parmesan cheese shards and an aged balsamic vinegar dressing; thinly sliced, sauteed in butter and used a topping for risotto;  crispy, crunchy carciofi alla giudia fried open to resemble a golden chrysanthemum; stuffed between the leaves with a savory mixture of breadcrumbs, cheese and herbs - and as I prepared them the other day, as a component of the sauce that I made for potato gnocchi.

It 's important to search out artichokes with their stem in tact.   Cut a few lemons in half.   Squeeze the lemons into a large bowl filled with water.   Working with 1 artichoke at a time, and conserving its stem, remove the outside leaves by  bending them backward and pulling them down; they'll snap at the meaty point of the leaf.  Pull away the leaves until you see only pale green ones, at about the halfway point of the artichoke.  Use a very sharp paring knife to trim away the tough green parts of the leaves that have remained, so that all you see is pale green.  Carefully peel the stem.  Trim the prickly pointed tops. Dig out the fizzy "choke" - a melonballer is an ideal tool.  Immediately add to the acidulated water.  Then proceed to further cut - or not - the artichokes as needed for your chosen recipe.
I made thinly sliced carciofi alla romanaI specify "thinly" sliced because "artichokes, Roman style" are usually cooked whole (after trimmed) or just cut in half.  I used 6 globe artichokes for this recipe.   As luck would have it - the globe artichokes from California are very similar to the mamelle artichokes that are used in Italy for this preparation.

Working with one trimmed artichoke at a time - cut in half, then in quarters.  Thinly slice each quarter and add back into the water until all are cut.

In a large saute pan add 1/2 cup olive oil with  3 or 4 cloves garlic that have been cut into 2 or 3 pieces each and 1 smashed, dry hot pepper such as cayenne and cook until the garlic is pale gold, about 1 minute.    Drain the artichokes, lower the heat and add them to the pan.  Be careful as the oil will splash when the  wet artichokes hit the pan.  Add 2 cups of the lemon water (strained) and 1 teaspoon salt.   Simmer, uncovered, until the artichokes are tender and a tester easily passes through them - about 20 minutes.  Stir in 2 tablespoons chopped, fresh flat leaf parsley.  Stir to combine.    The artichokes can
 be served immediately as a side dish, rice or pasta topper - or, as I did, with gnocchi.

I packed up the artichokes in an airtight container, and then made a very simple tomato sauce by simmering 2 pounds of  crushed-by-hand tinned San Marzano tomatoes in a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, some chopped garlic and a minced hot pepper for about 45 minutes (until somewhat reduced) - also packed in an airtight container.  The next day I left the City for the idyllic home of some friends, way upstate New York.  These friends are avid gardeners and had some delicious potatoes just waiting to be made into gnocchi.  I used the recipe from "Pasta Sfoglia" (John Wiley & Son, 2009), a book that I co-authored.
While the recipe calls for Idaho potatoes, I used an assortment of my hosts' grainiest potatoes - most of them 2nd and 3rd generation samples from their patch -   that included Burbank Russets, Carollas, All Blues (which gave the gnocchi  the most subtle lavender tinge), Kennebecs, and Katahdines.

makes 2 pounds gnocchi, serves 6 - 8

3 pounds unpeeled Idaho potatoes
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 egg
rice flour for dusting

1.   Gently boil the potatoes in their jackets in a large pot of water over medium heat until a tester easily passes through the thickest part.   Remove the potatoes from the pot and let cool to the touch; they shouldn't get completely cold.
2.   Wrap the potatoes in a kitchen towel or cotton napkin and rub to remove the skins.  Pass the potatoes through a ricer, into a large mixing bowl.
3.   Spread the all-propose flour on a clean, dry work surface.  Place the potatoes on top of the flour.  Add the egg and salt.  Use your hands to gather the ingredients together and gently knead the dough  into a 10 by 8-inch log.  Let rest for 2 minutes.
4.   Lightly dust a clean dry work surface  with rice flour.   Cut the log into 4 equal pieces.  Roll each piece into a 1-inch thick rope.  Cut each rope into 1/2-inch-wide gnocchi.  Store the gnocchi on a rice flour-covered baking sheet until ready to use.  Dust with rice flour.
5.   Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
6.   Meanwhile, add the tomato sauce to a sauce pan and thoroughly heat.  In a separate saucepan, do the same with the artichokes.
7.   Add the gnocchi to the boiling water and cook until they float to the top.  Cook for 1 minute more.  (I cook the gnocchi in 2 batches) Use a wire-mesh strainer to remove the gnocchi from the pot and place them them on a large, warm serving platter.  Pour the tomato sauce over the top of the gnocchi and top everything with the artichokes.  Garnish with freshly chopped parsley. Serve immediately.


SUSANSIMONSAYS:  All that good-for-you acid in the artichokes not only makes them oxidize rapidly but also tends to stain your hands as you work with them. Scrub your hands clean with lemon juice.  Believe me, ever-so-briefly, slightly stained hands  are a tiny sacrifice for BIG flavor.


  1. I was lucky enough to taste how tender and delicious these artichokes are, the dish has inspired me to take the time to prepare some...soon!
    Wish I was sitting down to a steaming bowl of them right now!

  2. thanks Amy - it was a great pleasure sharing the kitchen and table with you!

  3. thanks Amy, it was great to share the kitchen with you